Rabbi Joel Simon hosted a Passover seder Monday at his South Tampa townhouse. He cooked brisket and turkey, made 110 matzo balls and baked flourless chocolate cake.
He transformed his living room into a cozy table for 25.
The associate rabbi at the Schaarai Zedek synagogue in Tampa organizes the seder and other holiday events for young adults new to town or without family locally who otherwise wouldn't have a place to go. He wants 20- and 30-somethings to embrace their Jewish faith and find its relevance to their lives.
"It's a group that very easily can feel disconnected," he said. "I think that a lot of people think religion is for kids. They do it when they are kids and they do it when they have kids. But there is something in it for everyone."
A Denver native, Simon came to Tampa less than four years ago to join the 1,000-family synagogue. He was 26 at the time, the youngest Reform rabbi in the United States, he said.
Simon works all aspects of the temple, from leading Friday services to teaching preschool and helping children prepare for their bar/bat mitzvahs. He has made young adults his priority.
He plans events where people his age hang out — and, yes, that includes bars. He organized a Pre-Passover Pizza and Pilsners party at the Dubliner Irish Pub. He also does wine and cheese receptions at the synagogue.
"I want people to feel comfortable with their rabbi," he said. "Growing up, I loved my rabbi, but he was someone who was very much up there. He wasn't the most accessible."
Simon's energy and openness have gained him a fast foothold in the Jewish community. For many, he's the go-to Jew for any questions about Judaism. A random phone text he received this week: Can I bring flowers for a seder host? His answer: Certainly.
"It feels like Joel has been here a lot longer than he has been because he's made such a contribution," said Lisa Robbins of the Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation. "He's fun to be around, super smart and charismatic. He really cares."
Simon first connected to Judaism through music. He picked up the guitar at age 8 and later played in a Jewish rock band, the Minor Prophets. By high school, he knew he wanted to be a rabbi, Hebrew for "my teacher."
He sees his job as a path toward discovery that changes with time. He doesn't have all the answers.
"I think of myself on a journey," he said, ''and I hope I can help others on their journey."